My main character in the ARKANE thriller series (and alter-ego), Morgan Sierra, has been beaten up, stabbed, shot, scratched by demon claws, and almost blown up over the nine books I've been writing her story.
That's what you get as an action adventure heroine! But how much can we injure our characters and still write in the realm of reality? In today's article, paramedic Samantha Keel explains what authors are getting wrong.
My name is Samantha Keel. I’m an author-entrepreneur, but I’ve also been a paramedic for the last 10 years. If it can be done to the human body, I’ve probably seen it, smelled it, or at least read about it. I also run the ScriptMedic blog, where my two passions converge.
Today I’d like to offer you the Top 5 Mistakes that writers – great and small – make when writing about injuries.
Mistake #5: The Wound Doesn’t Match the Outcome
Every time we wound a character, we’ve given them a cause. While that injury should come as an effect of some other element of your story, a great many writers fail to consider the effects of the wound they inflict on a protagonist.
While this can happen with any wound (and is usually a symptom of bigger problems with the relationship between cause and effect in a story), there are two, in particular, that drive me absolutely bonkers.
First is a case where we fail to see the effects of an injury on our hero. Action and thriller writers have a love affair with shooting their heroes in what they think of as the “shoulder” – right at or below the clavicle.
“Aha!” they seem to say. “How gritty! It’s a nothing wound – the hero will carry on anyway!”
The problem is that the last person I met with a gunshot or stab on that part of the body was dead as can be.
There’s a lot of stuff in chests. That region, in particular, has things like lungs and the subclavian artery. An injury to either can be fatal within minutes.
But if I could incinerate and destroy one fallacy writers fall prey to about the way injuries work, it’s the myth of the harmless knockout, what I call the “TKO TBI” – the Total Knockout Traumatic Brain Injury.
Writers of all stripes seem to love this one. And why not? It’s so useful! The hero can get by the evil overlord’s henchmen without the moral complications of killing them, simply by hitting them over the head. Plus, it can even work the other way around – the villain can knock out the hero just long enough to abduct the hero!
The problem is that this doesn’t just break the chain of cause and effect. This one actually kills people.
Culturally, by propagating this trope, we teach people that head injuries are No Big Deal™. But the fact is that neurological injuries – particularly ones that result in unconsciousness – are deadly. They’ll kill 45,000 Americans this year.
(Sorry I don’t have the numbers for the UK, Joanna!)
Treating severe injuries this way not only cheapens something tragic, it teaches us that it’s no big deal to hit someone in the head. They’ll wake up in a few minutes!
Unless they never wake up. It can, and it does happen.
Mistake #4: They Cut Off the Story Arc (Along With the Limb)
Injury plots, when done correctly, have a distinct pattern that they follow. It’s a six-part arc, one that follows a Beginning, Middle and End, just like so:
- The Inciting Injury, the moment and manner in which the character gets hurt.
- The Immediate Treatment, what the character does to feel better and avoid further injury in the moment. This can include everything from returning fire and fleeing the scene to bandages and impromptu splints.
- The Definitive Treatment, when the character receives definitive attention for their injury. This is often, but not necessarily, surgical.
- The Rocky Road to Recovery, when the character faces challenges relating to their new disability and how they cope with those problems during healing.
- The Big Test, the moment when a character must overcome a larger challenge related to the global plot – while still recovering from their injury.
- The New Normal, when the character’s final level of disability becomes apparent. They can have No Disability, a Partial Disability, or be Totally Disabled (for the affected body part).
Certainly, there can be failures in each of these phases, but by far the most maligned is the Rocky Road to Recovery.
The Rocky Road is essential to the injury plot because it’s where we watch our heroes struggle with their injuries and how that affects their goals. It’s where we see the ways our heroes overcome adversity. Can the plucky hero take out the evil overlord even though she’s wounded? How will our hero overcome?
So why are so many writers seemingly afraid of lingering injuries in their heroes?
Time after time, we see the recovery part of the plot cut short. Especially in sci-fi and fantasy stories, Magical Healing gets heroes back on their feet – and missing the point.
Luke Skywalker is a perfect example. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke and Darth Vader throw down – and Luke’s hand gets amputated! It and his lightsaber go sailing over the catwalk and into oblivion.
But a few short scenes later, Luke has a brand-new prosthetic hand just like his real one! He has no disability whatsoever from his ordeal.
And because his ability doesn’t change, he doesn’t change, and we don’t care.
Magical Healing runs the real risk of cheapening injuries that should be devastating and interesting. It cuts off the effect portion of the story, leaving us with a cause.
Mistake #3: Wandering Wound Syndrome
Wandering Wound Syndrome is a writing mistake that, unfortunately, does exactly what it says on the tin: the writer elects to wound a character – and then forgets the details. Maybe what was a gash on the eyebrow on Page 23 translocates to the lip on 45 and the shoulder by 64.
This is a failure in two places: the writer’s memory (and note-taking), and the editor’s continuity check.
But there’s a variant of Wandering Wound Syndrome that’s simply unforgivable.
It goes like this: our Intrepid Hero™ was just in the fight of his life. He’s faced certain death – and, battered and bruised and limping and bleeding, he’s escaped.
It seems, to a certain kind of writer, like injuries and battle wounds are the exact human equivalent of catnip. And so the Big Bad Bruised Hero and his Special Someone… “Make Woohoo,” as The Sims™ would call it. (For whatever reason, this seems to happen most often with “cracked,” i.e. broken, ribs.) The injuries – and their pain – magically vanish in his lover’s arms.
Is the hero hurt, or isn’t he?
Look, I’m married. I enjoy Making Woohoo. But if anyone tries to Make Woohoo with me on cracked ribs, they are going to be sorely disappointed, because my thoughts are going to be holy hells it hurts to breathe please stop, not come here, baby. Perhaps I’m a wimp – or perhaps this trope needs to go.
Mistake #2: Failure to Research
Look, perfect accuracy in fiction is hard, and it isn’t even always desirable. It’s painful and time-consuming to do research on everything you COULD do to a character, then sift through the list, select a wound, and write about it.
That’s okay! But at least do a little research on what you’re intending to write about. Often times it seems like writers regurgitate what we think we know about a topic – which really translates into what we’ve absorbed through other people’s stories. We write what “must be true” because we’ve seen it on TV.
So here’s a list of absolutely realistic consequences and eventualities that you can take and insert into your stories. Ready? Here we go…
- Bullets are left in more often than you think. There is no Bullet Imperative – “the bullet must come out” is a false mindset – and lead poisoning is only a factor if the bullet lodges itself in bone. Generally, they’re more likely to die taking it out than leaving it in.
- Any bullet or stab to the gut is, in a modern setting, going to end with a surgeon opening up the belly for exploratory surgery to see what the damage is. (Yes, if they happen to find the bullet, they’ll take it out.) Your character will be out of commission for at least a week or two while the sutures heal, even if nothing important got damaged.
- Head injuries resulting in more than a couple minutes’ worth of unconsciousness are classified as Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) and result in massive, life-altering neurological changes. These effects can range from aphasia (difficulty speaking or finding words) to memory loss (not of identity, but short and long-term memory damage is possible), motor and coordination problems, and significant personality changes. In short: they can’t just wake up in the trunk and punch their captors out!
- Even a concussion can cause these kinds of changes. In fact, the character doesn’t even have to lose consciousness to suffer life-changing brain injuries.
- No character is “going into” shock. Either they are dying (i.e. they’re in shock), or they’re not. Shock also doesn’t mean what you think it means. It’s a medical state of low blood flow, not a psychological state of surprise.
- A broken bone will take six weeks to heal, on average, but will feel better before it is better. That means characters will be at risk for doing something they shouldn’t – and re-breaking the bone.
- Dislocations, especially first-time dislocations, can’t simply be “popped back in.” They need X-rays to look for fractures, and even once they’re reduced – put back – the joint still needs time to heal and stabilize, or the risk of redislocation runs high.
Mistake #1: Writing a Plot, Not A Story
Look, do me a favor. Throw out every single thing you’ve learned in this article so far if you have to. If you walk away with just one lesson from this long-winded post, let it be this one.
A Plot is a series of things that happen. I use the Lemony Snicket definition: a plot is A Series Of Unfortunate Events.
A Story is how that series of events changes a character.
Let’s take Mary. If Mary goes to the store, then the bank, then goes home, that’s a plot. It’s a sequence of events. And it’s boring.
But if we write this as a story… Mary goes to the store because she’s going to spend what little she has on Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, her little nephew Ricky’s favorite cereal. At the register she swipes her debit card six times, only to discover that the account is empty – how embarrassing! Her cheeks burn with shame. She storms across the parking lot to the bank to find out what happened. The kindly manager gently informs her that not only is her meager savings gone, the house she shared with her late husband – the house he carried her over the threshold in, the house they rebuilt from nothing – has been foreclosed on. And, with tears streaming down her cheeks and the weight of the world upon her heart, Mary walks home, with not even a box of cereal to show for it.
I admit it’s not a good story, but it’s got reasons and motivations. Things matter to Mary this time around. The obstacles get in the way of a goal.
And with sub plots like injury arcs, I’ll let you in on a secret. We don’t care, not truly, about the oozing blood or the tender bruise, or even about the snap of bones as they break. What we care about – what will keep us flipping pages – is why it matters. What does this mean for your character – and for the bigger overall story?
In short: why do we care?
I think this is the real reason behind Wandering Wound Syndrome and Magical Healing. The writer knows that we expect injuries in the course of a Great Heroic Quest in order to ground the story in reality, but I think in focusing on injuring the character at all, a great many of us lose track of the larger point.
Injuries should be lenses through which we see our heroes and learn about them. We should see not just their short-lived physical pain, but the choices that pain forces them to make and the paths they must take to accomplish their goals anyway.
Don’t just maim your characters. Give their injuries meaning.
Are you guilty of making some of these mistakes when you injure your characters? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Samantha Keel is a veteran paramedic and author of the ScriptMedic blog, a site dedicated to medical accuracy in fiction. In just eight short months, her blog has attracted over ten thousand readers and accidentally started a writing advice revolution on Tumblr. She lives in [redacted] USA, with her beautiful wife and imaginary pibble, Steve, and can be found @scriptmedic on Twitter.
If you’re not careful, she’ll sneak up on you in a dark alleyway and give you a free ebook: 10 B.S. Medical Tropes that Need to Die Today. She’s also offering a free email course called Maim Your Characters about how to effectively use injuries in storytelling